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'Stepfather II' : (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 06, 1989

The first clue is in the name: "Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy." Three years ago, the model was called, rather dryly, "The Stepfather," which may be why very few people went to see what turned out to be one of the most scary psychological thrillers ever made. Though it died in the theaters, "The Stepfather" found a second life on cable, on videocassette and on a number of that year's best-of lists. Unfortunately, this sequel is stillborn, despite the return of actor Terry O'Quinn as the would-be, or perhaps, better-be family man always one tic away from exploding into homicidal rage.

After a cheap segue from the climax of the original and a clumsy explanation (via a hospital psychiatrist) of O'Quinn's basic problem -- he's just not having much luck pursuing the American Dream, House or Home -- director Jeff Burr is on his own and, thanks to a cliche-ridden script by John Aerbach, he goes nowhere, slowly.

Turns out that the steak knife in O'Quinn's heart wasn't "The End," but just a nick, that he'd been declared insane and that he really hasn't changed once he gets out of the hospital by murdering the psychiatrist and his warder. Moving to a new small town, O'Quinn assumes a new persona -- a psychiatrist specializing in family matters (this passes for irony). Of course, the woman who sells him his house lives across the street, has an adolescent son and has been abandoned by her husband (this passes for plot convenience). There's also a snoopy mailwoman, a cad of a husband who tries to come home and red herrings and obvious clues to give the illusion of substance. It's just an illusion, as is Burr's ability to build, sustain or deliver the reality-rooted horror that made "The Stepfather" so chilling and effective.

O'Quinn, who the first time around was all sharp edges, is still oily smooth, the consummate liar who needs to be quick on his feet to stay ahead of himself, or at least his evil self. His original performance elicited Oscar-raves, but O'Quinn was working with a great script, a good director and a limited but well-designed budget. He has none of those advantages here. In fact, much of the action takes place in a suburban tract that looks to be uninhabited, and the film's reliance on implied sets is laughable. As for O'Quinn's fits of rage, they carry none of the fury or explosive tension this time around.

As the real-estate-agent-next-door who gets involved with O'Quinn, Meg Foster is adequate, except when she looks toward a camera: Then her "Children of the Damned" eyes are genuinely disturbing, and they're not supposed to be. More interesting is Caroline Williams, whom genre fans will remember from another failed sequel, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2." Williams has the same Southern grit as Holly Hunter, albeit without quite the same grace. Still, she deserves better in both this film and her career.

The original "Stepfather" was a complex thriller about a man whose quest for perfection led him to murder one family and marry into another; it compellingly wove threads together until an unsettling tapestry emerged. "Stepfather 2" is just slick marketing trying to capitalize on unsettling art -- and failing badly, at that. Rent the original on videocassette if you really want a scary film.

Stepfather 2 is rated R and contains some graphic violence

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